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Hurricane forecast: Less funding, more work for local officials

As federal dollars and responsibility wane and the 2006 season revs up, county and state emergency management officials look for ways to stay ahead of the coming storms.

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Tropical Storm Alberto came to Raleigh's Crabtree Valley Mall on June 14. - PHOTO COURTESY OF WK DICKSON CO. INC.
  • Photo courtesy of WK Dickson Co. Inc.
  • Tropical Storm Alberto came to Raleigh's Crabtree Valley Mall on June 14.

In 1996, when Hurricane Fran blasted ashore in Wilmington and then swept inland and up to the Triangle, its 95-mph winds destroyed beachfront communities, closed parts of interstates 85 and 40, and downed electrical lines that left two-thirds of the state in the dark. Three years later, floods from Hurricane Floyd damaged almost 60,000 homes and left more than 15,000 uninhabitable. Hurricanes Bonnie, Dennis, Isabel and Charley wreaked havoc of their own. The storms haven't devastated concentrated population centers to the extent that Katrina devastated New Orleans, but North Carolina has seen its share of disasters.

This hurricane season, which meteorologists are predicting will bring several Atlantic Coast storms, it looks like local and state emergency managers will bear much more of the responsibility for disaster planning and recovery. On a recent visit to Raleigh, Michael Chertoff, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, acknowledged that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is not up to full strength, according to news reports. And a report from a U.S. Senate committee called "Hurricane Katrina: A Nation Still Unprepared" issued a dire assessment of FEMA and recommended abolishing the agency altogether. (The report is available online at hsgac.senate.gov/index.cfm?Fuseaction=Links.Katrina.)

Locals don't know what kind of support to expect. With all the chaos at the federal level, the importance of the state's role in emergency management is more critical than ever.

Emergency managers in the Triangle and Down East say the federal government's shift away from funding storm planning and recovery expenses puts an even heavier burden on local budgets and personnel.

Hurricane Katrina exposed serious deficiencies at FEMA that local and state emergency managers have complained about for years. Under the Bush administration, the agency became a haven for political appointees after President Clinton had done much to reverse that trend in the agency's history, and its new emphasis on terrorism was leaving it ill-prepared to respond to natural disasters. (See the Indy's award-winning Sept. 22, 2004 story predicting FEMA's failures, "Disaster in the making," at www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A22664).

The Senate report on Katrina failures showed that FEMA's relationships with local and state officials had eroded because federal preparedness grants were shifted to Homeland Security with its focus on terrorism, FEMA director Michael Brown lacked leadership skills, and the agency didn't have adequate plans for search-and-rescue missions. The list goes on.

"We're doing our best to make sure that we're ready locally," says Eric Griffin, emergency management specialist for Orange County. "We're doing our best to keep from having to rely on FEMA. We're looking to our state for help."

A study commission of the state legislature set up after Katrina sought to identify weaknesses in the North Carolina's emergency management systems.

"We hadn't been a big item on the radar prior to the hurricanes that hit in 2004," says Douglas Hoell Jr., director of the state's Division of Emergency Management. "We are probably making progress for the first time in a long time."

Almost 30 legislators met several times over the last few months with the goal of finding problems that could be addressed in the short legislative session. The lack of local personnel was a universal concern. Most counties, including many of the hurricane-prone counties along the coast, must divide their resources, with emergency managers taking on responsibilities as fire marshals, 911 system managers and emergency medical managers. "Our emergency management staff is two people that have other responsibilities and duties," said Randy Thompson, Brunswick County emergency manager and president of the N.C. Emergency Management Association. That number includes him. Thompson briefed the committee on the preparedness of local governments. Additional staff, especially planners, would make a big difference, he says.

"Things change down here every day ... we are currently the 29th fastest-growing county in the country. We need to make sure we are planning for that change."

If Johnston County emergency management director Dewayne West had his way, he'd hire two more staff persons dedicated to emergency management: a public educator and a planner. But without federal support, that would require raising county taxes, which won't happen any time soon.

Planners help local governments identify the hazards they face and examine the populations and building structures to assess risk. Then they look at the local capacity to address those risks, and finally determine a mitigation approach, or find the preventive measures that can lessen the impact of future natural disasters. Planners also help integrate the local, state and federal hazard response and mitigation plans; both FEMA and the state have guidelines, and local planning must satisfy both sets of requirements.

Local staffing depends largely on federal funding. Each county receives federal funds to aid in paying for an employee to carry out emergency management responsibilities. The money is
usually placed in the county's general fund and the emergency management responsibility is assigned as an additional duty to the fire marshal or EMS director. The source of that federal funding, the Emergency Management Performance Grant program, is in constant danger of being cut. Secretary Chertoff reportedly told a congressional committee that the federal government doesn't traditionally fund personnel.

Right now, North Carolina counties average about $20,000 from Emergency Management Performance Grants, the primary source of federal support for personnel, according to Hoell. But President Bush's budget requests for fiscal year 2007 cut nationwide EMPG funding from $183 million to $170 million. The House Appropriations Committee requested a little more than $186 million in its budget (the Senate has not yet considered the matter), but even that proposed budget increase is far short of what's needed.

"It's not enough to do what we do," says West, of Johnston County. "We have struggled year after year. We've had to fight to keep them at the levels that they are when they should be twice as much." West says EMPG money accounts for 16 percent of his budget. He uses it for personnel, training and travel. He isn't alone in his budget crunch. Results from a 2004 National Emergency Management Association survey of state emergency management directors estimates that the fund is $260 million shy of what managers say they need. That number could increase when the biannual survey is completed this fall.

Federal money for mitigation programs has also been cut. The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program--not to be confused with disaster recovery--provides funding to reduce the future impact of natural disasters, the rationale being that upfront investment saves money in the long run. According to Chris Crew, the chief of hazards mitigation for the N.C. Division of Emergency Management, the state's most common use of the money is for the acquisition of residences that are in flood-prone areas. After Hurricane Floyd, the state bought more than 4,000 houses that were located in floodplains, he says. The money is also used to elevate homes in low-lying areas.

Hazard mitigation grants are funded according to a formula based on the total federal government outlay to a state. In the past, 15 percent of federal assistance was designated for mitigation programs. This meant that if the federal government gave $1 million in federal assistance to a state in a given year, $150,000 would be designated for mitigation. But in 2003, the White House cut HMGP in half--the feds now pay only 7.5 percent. In North Carolina, the cuts slow the rate at which the state can acquire and elevate homes in the floodplain. Like the emergency management grants, HMGP money partially covers the costs of personnel. "One of the chief drawbacks to the smaller appropriation is that we used 10 percent of that for operating costs," Crew says.

To make up for some of the difference in mitigation funding, the Pre-Disaster Mitigation program was established, which has states compete for mitigation funding. Congress appropriated $150 million for the program in fiscal year 2003, and it has faced cuts ever since. In fiscal year 2006, Congress cut nationwide funding to $50 million.

"It means that we can do less and the state ends up picking up a bigger share of the cost of these activities," Crew says. There's no telling what the funding will be next year. "Like all state agencies, we just do more with less and go begging to the legislature to make up the difference," Crew says.

The state committee didn't only cast blame up on the federal government. Local and state vulnerabilities were identified as well. Near the top of the list of the state's vulnerabilities was poor communication and sharing of information among different levels of government. Hoell warned of one communication lapse in particular: The state emergency management division typically deals with county governments when it comes to planning for disasters. City governments and other municipalities aren't always kept in the loop. In New Orleans, this kind of failure led to delays in locating victims and slowed shipments of water and food. Most county emergency managers wouldn't admit such problems exist in their jurisdictions; "not in my county" was the consensus. But Griffin could see how that kind of communication could be a problem. "The larger the city, the less they want to work with the county. But I think that Katrina and the failures opened many eyes across our state. If they weren't talking before, they are talking now."

The state's evacuation plans for special needs populations also need to improve. According to Drexdal Pratt, the emergency medical services chief at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, there isn't a mandated standardized patient and facility tracking system. There hasn't been a review of facility evacuation plans to make sure that they are adequate. And there is no state authority to mandate evacuations if the need exists.

Despite the weaknesses, though, there have been some successes at the state level, particularly in the area of floodplain mapping. When Hurricane Floyd struck in 1999, local officials could not predict where the floodwaters would go because the flood maps were "grossly inadequate," as then-Gov. Jim Hunt put it. Reports showed that 70 towns hit hardest by Floyd had no flood maps, and most of the rest were out of date--some as much as 17 years. The state and federal governments expect to spend $90 million to bring the state's 100 counties up to date by 2008.

The state committee made two hurricane-related appropriations recommendations based on its study. The committee proposed the State Emergency Response Fund Bill to establish a special $20 million revenue fund apart from the general fund, which the governor could spend to cover the start-up costs of emergency response in disasters. Committee members recommended that the fund also be used to provide state matching funds for federal disaster assistance. The Senate budget bill established the $20 million fund, but restricted the money to immediate start-up costs; the money can't be used for matching funds.

The second bill would appropriate more than $8 million to the N.C. Department of Crime Control and Public Safety to construct a new emergency operations center as a portion of the new National Guard headquarters. Fiscal analyst Denise Thomas says that both bills should make it into the final budget. But the appropriations would be for fiscal year 2007, which begins July 1.

In the meantime, local and state emergency managers will have to work with what they have, and the season is upon us. On June 14, Tropical Storm Alberto dumped nearly eight inches of rain on Raleigh, flooding streets and apartment complexes in low-lying areas, shutting down Crabtree Valley Mall and damaging 14,000 acres of tobacco crops.

"We're doing the best we can with limited resources. The state is doing the same," says Griffin, of Orange County. "All emergencies begin and end locally. We have to be ready."

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